Bigger Than The Ritz: 'The Queen of Versailles' Tells a Tale of Conspicuous Consumption

For the last two decades, Lauren Greenfield has been working on a long-term photographic work about wealth, consumerism, and the international influence of the values of the American Dream. For her latest project, she visited the Florida-based  time-share mogul David Siegel and his wife, Jackie, to take still photographs. Invited to stay in their 26,000 square foot "starter" mansion, Greenfield discovered a household full of warmth and constant activity, amazing characters, a menagerie of animals, and an unusually down-home sensibility where Jackie and David managed to stay true to their humble origins and tastes, while living in an outsized fantasy world of castles, private jets, priceless antiques, and theme-park quality activities for their children.

Soon it became clear to Greenfield that their story could best be told through film. And then their empire, fueled by the real estate bubble and cheap money, faltered due to the economic crisis. David Siegel, insisting that his business has returned to solvency, has filed a defamation lawsuit against the filmmaker.

Documentary caught up with Greenfield as she was preparing for the July 20th theatrical release of The Queen of Versailles (Prod.: Danielle Renfrew Behrens), through Magnolia Pictures.

 

Photo: Lauren Greenfield. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 

Documentary: As the eponymous Queen of Versailles, despite her profligacy, Jackie Siegel's self-perception is that of a flexible homemaker, adept at adapting to either end of the economic spectrum. Is she delusional?

Lauren Greenfield: "Jackie is a child" is how David describes her. Her eternal optimism and generous heart don't let the reality of the world weigh her down. Respectively, McDonald's and Caviar are her two favorite foods. With the drastic shift in fortunes, she reaches out to her family again, helps a friend out with money to avoid foreclosure (although it ends up not being enough, the gesture is telling) and proves herself to be the better survivor of the two. She admits to having once cleaned out cadavers, which is an unusual experience for those of a moderate income, let alone the ultra-rich. With what is due to become, at 90,000 square feet, the biggest house in America, courtesy of their unchecked individual whims, David is building his legacy and manifesting his reward; Jackie is living life as it comes, and consequently takes fluctuations much more in her stride. Not quite "easy come, easy go," but definitely more philosophical than him. As her husband's focus alters to save his once extravagantly bountiful sprawling empire, he retreats and isolates, recognizing that he had chosen to shoulder the entire burden and not share any of it with his wife. She shows herself as a truly devoted and concerned wife who tries to rally the children to support their dad by showing their love for an appreciation of him. He lashes out at them about the electricity bill and sundry other practical concerns. From his perspective as a hard-working business man, she is delusional.

 

D: There is a delicious irony in the fact that though billionaire David Siegel keeps such a tight reign on all the household bills, he considers the Versailles palace a realistic and
viable investment of both his time and money.

LG: I see the through line of this film as an indulgent love story. Entranced by her beauty, David fell for former model Jackie first. At the beginning, she was ambivalent. He
was adoring; she was flattered. There is a 30-year age difference and he seemed happy to play the Sugar Daddy, doting on his prize of a trophy wife. Apart from bearing his seven children, it is her response to the relative hardship that demonstrates her love for him, and her particular brand of practicality. When things go awry, though she still very much believes that he deserves to be
rewarded, she is willing to let go of the dream house, inspired by both the chateau in Ile-de-France and the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas; it is he who is consumed by saving it--and he borrows $20 million from a third party to do so.

As they fall back down to earth, these two unique characters develop in unexpected ways,
adapting to the new circumstances with surprisingly relatable humility and candor. The way they respectively handle these challenges sheds light on both their characters and their hard-knock origins, and imbue their supersized story with an "everyman" quality that is as unpredictable as is their change in fortune. What crushed David most was losing the Westgate property, a 52-story Vegas tower, the tallest time-share that had ever been built; it cost over $600
million at the height of the boom when they started it. This was really his legacy; this was the most important thing to him because it afforded him such a high profile.

The Vegas tower was just as important a part of the story as the Versailles house. And he said that if he would be able to save that building, to find an investor, then that would be his greatest
accomplishment. He saw the drama of what was going on, but I believe that he hoped it would be a victorious ending for him. The reason he was so upset by the Sundance publicity material was because he felt the declaration of insolvency would stifle his chances of future backing, and that sparked his self-protective response. Though the lawsuit is active, Jackie has continued to accompany me to the screenings.

 

D: Both self-made people, there is precious little emphasis placed on education for their children, but surely that is the corner stone of attaining The American Dream?

LG: When IBM left Jackie's home town, the inhabitants were devastated. Though unusual for her family, Jackie graduated as an engineer, but was smart enough to see that it was her looks that would give her the greater currency to elevate her status and attain wealth. If education is a means to the end that is the American Dream of vast wealth, then with the vast wealth already established for her children, there is little need to emphasize education. With what seems like real disappointment and resignation, she says that now they might have to tell their kids that they'll have to go to college, as though it's back to square one for them. Even then, there actually might not be enough money to send them to college.

 

Photo: Lauren Greenfield. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 

D: Can you speak to the effect money has had on their parenting styles?

LG: They wanted to indulge their children in a way that they had never been indulged themselves, as exemplified by a separate wing for the children in their version of Versailles. Although loving to all of their children, Jackie is frank about the fact that without the cushion of such convenience and opulence, it is unlikely that she would have had so many. The shift in lifestyle, their subsequent struggle in the wake of the economic crisis reduces an original staff of 19 to a
core of four. With one in particular, Virginia, a Filipino, a parallel with her own life is clear: Money is the reason that both of them have deferred traditional mothering and direct parenting. Based in America for 20 years, Virginia continues to send money home to support her family in the Philippines while she takes care of Jackie's children. Oddly, money affords them both a freedom from parental duty toward their own biological children.

 

Virginia, the Siegels' housekeeper. Photo: Lauren Greenfield. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 

 

D: How would you describe your considered approach to the telling of this allegory?

LG: It is told in the subjects' own words, from a compassionate non-investigative angle. Over three years [2007-2010], I grew close to the family and liked them all very much. I found Jackie to be refreshingly friendly and candid, with a combination of chutzpah, self-effacing humor, and lack of pretense, qualities that are sometimes obscured by the protective veil of great wealth. She invited me to visit Florida and photograph their family. Little did I know this would be the first shoot of a three-year relationship with the Siegels, and the beginning of a film about their lives in turmoil because when I met them everything in their lives was triumphant.

 

Denise O'Kelly is a writer, editor and translator living in Santa Monica.